The Plaza Theatre in downtown Palm Springs is the Norma Desmond of the city’s illustrious midcentury past: Like the faded grand dame of the classic Billy Wilder film, the 1936 Spanish Colonial Revival building has fallen on hard times. But unlike Desmond, it could again be ready for its close-up, say those who love the landmark and think it just needs the money for a good fixing up.
“Frasier” co-creator David Lee, a Palm Springs resident, responded to preservationists’ calls on Wednesday with a $5 million pledge to the Plaza Theatre Restoration Project, launched just before the pandemic.
Lee, who also co-wrote and co-produced “Cheers” and “The Jeffersons,” will donate the first $3 million immediately. The remaining $2 million will be matching funds to lure additional donations. The full restoration is estimated to cost $10 million to $12 million.
The city has engaged the architectural firm Gensler and historic preservation consultants to formulate a restoration plan, which calls for structural improvements, new theatrical equipment and 670 new seats.
The Plaza Theatre has long been a Palm Springs cultural star. Designed by architect Harry Williams, it opened with the premiere of George Cukor’s film “Camille,” starring Greta Garbo. Legend has it that Garbo snuck into the back of the theater after the lights went down. Co-star Robert Taylor was present, along with Barbara Stanwyck.
Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra performed there. (Sinatra’s daughter, Nancy, staged a sold-out show at the Plaza in February 2020, the last before the COVID-19 shutdown.) Jack Benny and Bob Hope broadcast live radio from the theater, which staged world premieres for films including “My Fair Lady” and “The Music Man.”
In the 1980s, Sonny Bono hosted the Palm Springs International Film Festival out of the Plaza, and in the ’90s it became known as the home of the vaudeville variety show “The Fabulous Palm Spring Follies,” which ran for 23 years.
In 1991 the building was declared a Class 1 Historic Site, which protects it from structural changes that don’t adhere to its original design. The city’s campaign to restore it fully began in 2019, spearheaded by former city council member and current planning commission vice chair J.R. Roberts.